Movie Review ~ Mr. Harrigan’s Phone

The Facts:

Synopsis: When Mr. Harrigan sadly passes away, Craig discovers that not everything is dead and gone and strangely finds himself able to communicate with his friend from the grave.
Stars: Donald Sutherland, Jaeden Martell, Joe Tippett, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Cyrus Arnold, Colin O’Brien, Thomas Francis Murphy, Peggy J. Scott
Director: John Lee Hancock
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Enough Stephen King has been discussed on this site over the years that readers should be aware of how much I admire the author and save much of my guilty pleasure watches for his lesser-liked films.  (I’m looking at you, The Lawnmower Man and Graveyard Shift…)  I’ll always go to bat for King being one of the best storytellers out there, but with such a focus on getting inside the inner workings of his characters, I can see how his novels might not easily make the transition to the big (or small) screens.  It takes a particular hand to adapt the work, and, as we’ve seen from the flops, it helps to have King’s support as you do it.

When you hear the name Stephen King alongside Blumhouse Productions and Ryan Murphy, a particular kind of “Stephen King movie” starts to develop in your mind.  I can’t say that I blame Netflix for leaning into that in their marketing of Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, writer/director John Lee Hancock’s film based on the novella from the 2020 short story collection ‘If It Bleeds’.  The poster and the preview give more than a slight hint the film packs in the thrills and has the kind of shivers expected of an October release.  While admittedly, the movie does have its moments, it emerges as something far more elegant than just your average horror movie about a boy’s supernatural connection to his elderly dead friend. 

Losing his mother at an early age, Craig (Jaeden Martell, Knives Out) has grown up with his single dad (Joe Tippett), doing his best to handle the duties of both parents.  From an early age, he even reads aloud from the pulpit in church, Craig catches the eye of Mr. Harrigan (Donald Sutherland, Backdraft), who requests his services three times a week, where he’ll pay him $5 to read to him from various works of classic literature.  This arrangement continues for years, with Craig showing up dutifully.  Over time, he gets life advice and becomes friendly with the man that prefers to stay isolated in his vast mansion and tend to his greenhouse flowers. 

Craig begins high school in 2003, and that’s when problems start.  A bully (Cyrus Arnold, 8-Bit Christmas, who by now has built a cottage industry playing them) targets him and creates trouble wherever Craig goes.  A kind teacher (Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Silent Night) notices the conflict, but Craig is too worried about repercussions to make an official report.  All the cool kids, including a girl Craig is interested in, have the hot new tech at the time (the iPhone), and once Craig gets his, he’s in the sacred circle. 

It doesn’t protect him from his bully, though, or the onslaught of time.  Shortly after giving Mr. Harrigan an iPhone of his own, Craig’s reading companion dies suddenly, and in a symbolic gesture, Craig makes sure he is buried with it.  Not wanting to vent to his dad about the continuing school problems in case he pressures him to speak with school officials, Craig instead uses Mr. Harrigan’s still available voicemail to tell him about his problems.  Then he receives a response back… 

Without opening the gate on spoilers, it’s best to let you discover what happens next because a surprising amount of time is left in Mr. Harrigan’s Phone.  And it’s not all that you might think.  Leaning more toward the Dolores Claiborne end of the King canon for thrills and less of the Carrie vibe, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone affords the viewer enough time to get to know the characters and see them as real people.  It helps us then understand their motivations when facing decisions and pivot points later on.  Hancock (The Little Things) directs with a gentle hand, stepping back so a veteran actor like Sutherland can share scenes with the sensitive actor Martell demonstrably is and make something out of it.

Viewers going in expecting an all-out horror film or one that builds to a shattering climax with chains rattling and windows clanging will be disappointed with Mr. Harrigan’s Phone.  However, if you know you’re in for a well-told tale, you can overlook a few of the film’s plot holes (battery life, who is paying the phone bill?) and settle back for one of the best Stephen King adaptations I’ve seen in years. 

Movie Review ~ The Little Things

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A burnt-out deputy sheriff is sent to Los Angeles for what should have been a quick evidence-gathering assignment and becomes embroiled in a crack LASD detective’s search for a killer who is terrorizing the city.

Stars: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Sofia Vassilieva, Natalie Morales, Terry Kinney, Michael Hyatt, Chris Bauer, Isabel Arraiza, Joris Jarsky, Sheila Houlahan, John Harlan Kim, Tom Hughes, Jason James Richter, Stephanie Erb, Kerry O’Malley

Director: John Lee Hancock

Rated: R

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  During the recent long weekend I sat through nearly four hours of the mesmerizing documentary Night Stalker on Netflix which chronicled serial killer Richard Ramirez’s reign of terror over Los Angeles and neighboring counties in the mid ‘80s.  Here was proof positive of evil at its purest form, the killing of innocent people chosen at random with increasingly depraved brutality.  Anyone that’s ever read up on serial killers (or seen the movie Copycat) knows at least a little about Ramirez but I hadn’t truly experienced the full-on assault of his crimes until Night Stalker came along.  The fascination of the film for me wasn’t in the details of his actions, though, it was in the work of the dedicated detectives that called upon their resources, ingenuity, and plain old detective gut instinct to nab the predator.

This investigative work is always what draws me to these serial killer films and why I’ve been sad to see them fall by the wayside in recent years in favor of less complex plots that hinge more on luck than on genius.  Where are the Clarice Starlings from The Silence of the Lambs in film today?  Or a wise William Somerset from Se7en to take young recruits under their wing?  Heck, even Andy Garcia’s troubled detective in the not so beloved Jennifer 8 actually takes the time to investigate the reddest of all herrings. (I love that movie, by the by).  Even more than that, these are popular films that have entertainment value if generated with a modicum of competent thought, despite their often perilously dark subject matter.  Yet they’ve become less prestige over time and more the kind of films that top level B-grade stars frequent…rarely attracting A-list talent.  Plain and simple – we’ve been needing a movie like The Little Things to come around.

Writer/director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks) has delivered an agreeably formulaic but nonetheless efficiently crackerjack excursion back in time to 1990s Los Angeles, allowing viewers to follow along in a puzzling mystery.  An opening prologue applies just enough pressure to get the blood pumping but then withdraws for a time as introductions are made all around.  After a health scare several years earlier, former L.A. detective Joe ‘Deke’ Deacon (Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.) has retreated to a quieter life of public service as a deputy sheriff in Kern County, two hours outside of Los Angeles.  There’s a slight apprehension when he’s sent back to the big city to retrieve important evidence in a local case and we’ll find out why (but on Hancock’s slightly drawn-out timeline) after he runs into his old partner (Terry Kinney, Promised Land) and a medical examiner (Michael Hyatt, Nightcrawler), both of whom he shares a well-kept secret with.

Deke happens to arrive at an opportune time because his previous department could use an extra set of eyes to help find a killer targeting women.  At first, lead detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody) wants Deke far away from his case but once Baxter sees how the veteran lawman works, he realizes if there’s a key to catching the evil roaming the streets at night, Deke is holding it.  After examining the latest murder scene and discovering new evidence, the men are threatened with losing the case with the impending arrival of the FBI.   The two men combine their efforts in an attempt to flush out a criminal in hiding, eventually targeting a potential suspect (Jared Leto, Blade Runner 2049) who checks all the boxes to be the man they’re looking for but might also turn out to undo all the work they’ve done if he’s innocent.

Playing like a truncated season of True Detective, The Little Things doesn’t have the meat to fill out an five or six episode order on HBO but for a two hour movie that’s debuting on HBO Max, it’s a largely satisfying endeavor.  It has the appropriate amount of thrill to it at the beginning but benefits from a heat that sparks more than slow burns.  Now, this may be insufficient for some who want that slow burn gradient for their films and enjoy watching the waters rise over the nose the ears the eyes of their protagonists, but I almost found it more interesting how Hancock more or less would dunk his characters in cold water from time to time.  It’s also two mysteries in one, with the current murders being looked into while Deke has re-opened an older case that has haunted him for years.  It’s not always an equal balance between the two cases and I still haven’t decided if Hancock has resolved either fairly enough but it’s certainly more ambitious a plot than not.

You wouldn’t expect an actor like Washington to show up in film that didn’t have some extra oomph to it, would you?  While it falls into one of Washington’s more outright commercial efforts like the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven, you can tell Washington is bringing more to the character than what was on the page…and what was on the page is clearly what attracted him to the role in the first place.  Deke is a flawed character with a range of setbacks he’s been working around.  His return trip to L.A. is causing him to confront those and his relationship with Baxter is a chance for further reflection on the mistakes he’s made both personally and professionally.  In typical Washington fashion, he takes what could have been an average role that a good actor could have made better and turns it into a bona fide star turn.

He’s followed pretty closely by Leto as one of the creepiest characters I’ve seen anyone play in some time.  Wearing dark contacts, a paunch, greasy hair, and a strange gait, he also takes on an affected voice that I was dubious about at first but starts to work into the freak factor if you buy into Deke and Baxter’s hunch that he’s the man they seek.  He certainly plays into their suspicions and Leto goes full, well, Leto in the performance.  I was genuinely unnerved by the actor and he’s well cast from my vantage point.  In the shadow of these two, Malek can’t help but look a little chilly and reserved.  Apparently unaware he isn’t wearing his Freddie Mercury teeth anymore, Malek always appears poised to ask Washington if he has any Grey Poupon and his attempts at being serious come off as bug-eyed confusion.  He’s just the wrong fit for the role as a family man young detective that becomes obsessed with finding this killer.  Another note about the cast in general, Hancock has amassed a fairly phenomenal supporting cast of bit players comprised of, among others, familiar faces (Lee Garlington, Psycho II in a small role as a harried landlady) and grown-up child stars (I didn’t even recognize Free Willy’s Jason James Richter as another LASD detective) – so it’s all around a strong world that’s been created for viewers.

Built on Hancock’s sometimes wobbly script that does require your rapt attention, the editing of the film is what detracts from the overall quality the most.  Several key scenes are hard to follow because, without giving any spoilers, the editor doesn’t properly establish location of certain characters.  That’s a big problem when you’re trying to put a puzzle together with only your brain storing the pieces.  My advice is to pay close attention throughout because important information about characters are given in sometimes offhanded ways, almost as toss away lines.  For a number of people, The Little Things will be seen as a creaky serial killer thriller that’s past its expiration date but it’s actually one that has outlived its sell-by window with better than average results.

Movie Review ~ Saving Mr. Banks

saving_mr_banks

The Facts:

Synopsis: Author P. L. Travers reflects on her difficult childhood while meeting with filmmaker Walt Disney during production for the adaptation of her novel, Mary Poppins.

Stars: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, B.J. Novak, Rachel Griffiths, Kathy Baker

Director: John Lee Hancock

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 125 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: I have to be honest and say that I was probably pre-destined to enjoy Saving Mr. Banks.  As a huge fan of all things Disney (especially the early days) and growing up watching Mary Poppins I was looking forward to seeing how the studio that produced the classic film would handle a tell-all tale surrounding its creation.  Would it be a warts and all expose of the dark side of the House of Mouse or would it be a toothless feature length ad for the BluRay release of Mary Poppins?

While there are no warts to be found in the film and the sappy quotient is kept to a minimum, the overall effect of Saving Mr. Banks is one evoking a certain nostalgia for the golden age of filmmaking and Disney itself.  Who knows exactly how “honest” the script from Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith is but I can tell you that as a viewer I was moved and as a fan I was impressed.

Saving Mr. Banks is really two films in one.  The first follows Poppins author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson, Beautiful Creatures) as she travels from England to California to attend working sessions during the pre-production stage of the film version of Mary Poppins.  It’s well documented that Travers flinched at the idea of her beloved novels being turned into childish films and when Walt Disney (Tom Hanks, Joe Versus the Volcano) finally got her to agree to a meeting after over a decade of trying to get the rights he found the writer’s demanding requests to go down more like ipecac than a spoonful of sugar.

The second film springs from the mind of Travers as she recalls her childhood in Australia and the interaction she has with a father she idealized (Colin Farrel, Dead Man Down).  An alcoholic, her father was the center of her world and even through his failures he remained on a pedestal for her entire life.  We see how elements of her upbringing inspired the Mary Poppins books and can see why she so kept her novels so fiercely protected from those that would sully the memory of not only her creations but her beloved father.

Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Rookie) weaves together both stories in a nicely seamless way, keeping the movie afloat through some rough waters near the end when the movie starts to lay it on thick.  Overall, I didn’t mind that extra dose of syrup because it brought me back to the salad days of the studio when they had contract players and churned out many live-action classics. 

The film provides an interesting peek into the studio system that existed on the Disney lot in the 50’s and 60’s and the period design from Michael Corenblith is right on the money.  It was nice to see the Disney park recreated in the way guests would have seen it back then and the film historian in me loved seeing early production sketches of Poppins essentials that have stood the test of time.

Performance wise, Hancock has assembled the right cast…many of whom turn in surprisingly effective turns.  That’s never truer than in Thompson’s commanding performance as the chilly Travers.  She’s so cross and mean-spirited at times that it takes an actress of Thompson’s class to keep her this side of biddy without making her cartoonishly mean.  There’s Oscar buzz around Thompson and it’s completely warranted for her steel jawed ice queen that may not ever totally melt but thaws nicely.

Tom Hanks proves a bit more troublesome in his role as Walt Disney. Perhaps it was too much to hope that someone could truly portray Uncle Walt as good as the real deal but still I just never felt like Hanks got the job done.  The actor is so good-natured and easy to like but I had a hard time warming up to his off the mark Missouri-cadence and squinty stare…though he does muster up that same twinkle Mr. Disney had when addressing an audience. 

With each passing film I become more impressed with how Farrell has turned his movie career around.  He’s gone from Next Big Thing to Yesterday’s News and has come back nicely with a string of roles that are unexpected and unexpectedly sincere.  He’s wonderful here as the trouble father of Travers and gets the right emotional oomph out of his final scenes.  There’s nice work from Ruth Wilson (Anna Karenina, The Lone Ranger) as Travers exhausted mother, Rachel Griffiths (Muriel’s Wedding) as a late in the game familiar visitor, and B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman (Moonrise Kingdom) as the songwriting team of The Sherman Brothers who suffer the most wrath from Travers red pen.  Not usually a fan of Paul Giamatti (12 Years a Slave), I’ll say that his role as Travers’ chauffer has perhaps the most emotional payoff in the film and I enjoyed his performance quite a lot.

Though mysteriously rated PG-13 (for a few scary moments involving some blood), this is one film you can bring the whole family to.  Pair it with Mary Poppins when you get home and you’ll have a practically perfect double feature.

The Silver Bullet ~ Saving Mr. Banks

1

220px-Saving_Mr__Banks_poster

Synopsis: Author P.L. Travers travels from London to Hollywood as Walt Disney adapts her novel Mary Poppins for the big screen.

Release Date:  December 20, 2013

Thoughts: It’s not a huge Hollywood secret that getting Mary Poppins to the big screen wasn’t an easy task.  In fact, it wasn’t an easy task to get the woman who wrote the book that inspired the classic Disney tale to even meet with Walt Disney about his long held wish to bring the magical tale of a nanny to life.  By all accounts, P.L. Travers was fiercly protective of her creation and it was only when faced with some thin funds that she finally relentented….much to her eventual chagrin.  No fan of the finished product, Travers liked the screen adaptation of Mary Poppins about as much as Stephen King liked the 1980 film based on his novel The Shining.  This Christmas tale about Disney and Travers is made by the House of Mouse itself so I’ll be interested to see how warts and all they make it.  I’ll admit that only the last half of the trailer really caught my attention when it becomes more about the reasons why Travers was so close to the material…but coupled with a nice production design and canny performances, this should be a nice way to end 2013.